Megan Clarken was just months into her new job leading ad company Criteo when COVID struck. All 2,800 employees had to be sent home. Like the rest of the world, she had to come up with a blueprint for how she was going to lead from the front during an unprecedented shakeup.
Just weeks into her first CEO position, she had already had to grapple with one near-crisis — Google (GOOGL) announcing it would eradicate third-party cookies, a rethink on the cornerstone of the business. After this, COVID was another defining sink or swim moment.
“When something like COVID, happens there are no guidelines for how to deal with it and you do what you think is the right thing to do,” says Clarken.
Since then, despite the hill she has to climb, she has met almost every single person working for the company, making her mark by getting to know them through a series of what she calls 'coffee break meetings' with ten employees at a time on Zoom.
Not many top bosses can make the claim of having been face-to-face with that proportion of their workforce, especially at a time like this.
“Through it all the team has become tighter, and closer. More adaptable and flexible. It’s become a group that says what they want and need, and if it’s the right thing for the organisation it will happen.”
This type of leadership has meant that this is Clarken’s second feature in as many years on the HERoes InVolve lists. This year she is top of the HERoes Women Executives Role Model List 2021.
This accolade follows a tranche of other awards, including a mention by the 2019 National Organization of Women: Women of Power and Influence and the 2016 Multi-Channel News: Wonder Women. The native New Zealander was also dubbed “one of the most important people in media,” by Adweek.
For the past 15 years, she has been a champion of diversity and inclusion at Nielsen Global Media where she’s held varied roles, including CCO, president of Watch, Nielsen’s media measurement services and president of product leadership, prior to joining Criteo in 2019.
Her path to the top echelons of the business world is in no way conventional and has been defined by turning around extraordinary situations. A former Olympic-class athlete in track and field, Clarken was due to compete in the long jump in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, before she was sidetracked by an injury. Aged 19, her first career was over — and she decided she didn’t need to go to university to pursue her next one.
Through seven years spent leading Nielsen’s company-wide LGBTQ+ group, she implemented changes such as extending health insurance to same-sex partners and adding new benefits for those struggling with transgender health support, as well as IVF and same-sex adoption support.
She was also instrumental in working with the the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation organisation in ensuring Nielsen’s ratings system would count same-sex spouse and partner audiences, an initiative that took two years to implement.
“That might not seem like a big deal when you hear it, but the knock-on effect that that has to the relevance of viewing to consumers seeing themselves in content is incredibly powerful,” says Clarken. “If you see a same-sex audience growing you want to cater to that, so you start to see more LGBTQ people actually inside programming.”
Her commitment to diversity and inclusion informs how Criteo runs as an organisation.
"We do everything we can to bring our teams together," she says, noting that Criteo is about to run a week-long virtual all-hands offsite meeting — a concept Clarken herself says is "kooky".
"I'm doing everything I can do to make sure there's this cadence of things that keeps people connected, and enables them to make friends with people they have never met before even though we're a year and a half down the track."
And while being connected is important, above all, Clarken champions being yourself at work, and celebrating your differences as a key to hers and others' success.
"It makes you a better performer and gives encouragement to those around you. People, when they look to leaders, are looking for someone they can relate to who is standing up for what they believe and what others are thinking.”
"To promote me with this award, promotes everybody like me that has some difference. When you are your true self it really does set an example," says Clarken.